Humanitarian Assistance for Household Flooding: Discussion

We will resume in public session. Today we will discuss the humanitarian assistance scheme in terms of household flooding.

I wish to draw the attention of witnesses to the position on privilege. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee.

If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

The opening statements submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting. Members are likewise reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery are asked to ensure that for the duration of the meeting their mobile telephones are turned off completely or switched to safe or flight mode, depending on their device.

Today we are looking at the issue of the assistance available to people who have suffered as a result of the recent flooding. There is a means-tested scheme providing emergency financial assistance to households who are unable to meet the costs of essential needs. It should be noted there is a separate emergency scheme to help small businesses administered by the Irish Red Cross. To brief the committee on the humanitarian assistance scheme I am pleased to welcome from the Department of Social Protection, Ms Helen Faughnan, Ms Jackie Harrington and Ms Susan Kelleher. I invite Ms Faughan to make a presentation on behalf of the Department. Perhaps it could be kept to around six minutes, if possible. We can take whatever is left as read to allow the maximum time for questions.

Ms Helen Faughnan

That is fine. I thank the committee for the opportunity to appear before it today. I am accompanied by Ms Jackie Harrington, who has policy responsibility for the humanitarian assistance scheme and who travelled from Sligo today, and by Ms Susan Kelleher, our area manager from Clare with responsibility for the community welfare service in Clare.

As the Chairman, said this scheme is in place to provide supports to householders affected by the recent adverse weather events. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is the lead Department for severe weather emergencies and the Office of Public Works has responsibility for capital flood relief activities. However, the Department of Social Protection has an important role to play in assisting households in the immediate aftermath of emergency events such as flooding.

The scheme, administered by the local community welfare service, CWS, is available to assist affected householders following severe flooding. In 2012, the Department sought sanction from Government to activate this scheme in any future cases of flooding to facilitate an immediate response for householders following such devastating events. The scheme, which is means-tested, is available to assist people whose homes are damaged by the severe weather and who are not in a position to meet costs for essential needs, household items and, in some instances, structural repair.

The income test for humanitarian assistance is significantly more generous than that which applies in the case of means-tested social welfare schemes generally. The basic principle of the income test is that individuals and families with average levels of income will qualify for assistance. For example, a family consisting of a couple and two children with a gross household income of €70,000 or less will receive 100% of the amount allowable in respect of their application. A reduced or tapered level of support can be provided in cases where such families have income more than €70,000. The income test determines the household’s ability to meet the costs of restoring its home to a habitable condition.

The Government has not set a limit on the amount that can be paid to an individual household under this scheme. Levels of payment depend on the relative severity of damage experienced and the household’s ability to meet these costs, ensuring that the funding is appropriately targeted.

The Department immediately activated its humanitarian assistance scheme in response to the flooding in early December 2015. The scale and extent of the flooding experienced in recent weeks is unprecedented and has impacted right across the country. The Department has attended the daily meetings of the national co-ordination group to contribute to the co-ordinated interagency response which is being provided across the country. I assure the committee that the necessary community welfare service staff are in place and are engaging with local authorities and emergency personnel to ensure supports are provided to those affected as swiftly as possible. Department staff are proactive in assessing and meeting the demand for assistance through the establishment of emergency clinics and home visits. The Department has opened emergency clinics in towns such as Ballinasloe, Crossmolina, Athlone, Gort and Carrick-on-Suir and in a number of towns in Kilkenny.

Staff are on standby to open emergency clinics in other towns if the need arises.

The humanitarian assistance scheme is demand-led and emergency payments have already been made to 270 households, with expenditure of more than €235,000 to date. These are mainly payments covering essential items, including clothing, food, toiletries, meals for families relocated to emergency accommodation and fuel. To date, most support has been provided in Galway, Cork and County Mayo. However, support has also been provided to affected households in other counties, including Tipperary, Westmeath, Clare, Kerry, Kilkenny, Waterford, Wicklow, Sligo and Roscommon. A breakdown by county of the payments made to date has been circulated to the committee for information purposes.

In dealing with emergency events of this nature, the Department generally adopts a three-stage approach. Stage 1 is to provide emergency income support payments in the immediate aftermath of the event to cover needs such as food, clothing, toiletries and fuel. Stage 2 generally involves the replacement of white goods, basic furniture items and other essential household items after the flood water abates and the houses have dried out. Stage 3 is to identify what longer-term financial supports or works are required. These can include plastering, dry lining, relaying of floors, electrical rewiring and painting. Throughout this process, the staff engage with the local authorities and other agencies to ensure supports are provided to persons affected as swiftly as possible. It is expected that the number of claims and the costs in respect of the current flooding will increase in the coming weeks as we move into making stage 2 and stage 3 payments, which, as already stated, cover the replacement of furniture and white goods and longer-term financial supports. Householders seeking assistance under the scheme are being advised to contact their local Department of Social Protection office, which will be able to offer assistance. Contact telephone numbers are also available on the Department's website. All the local authorities and emergency personnel have all the key local contact details.

Assistance is not provided under this scheme for losses covered by insurance, commercial or business losses or, generally, any loss or damage to private rented accommodation or local authority accommodation. As the committee will be aware, there is a separate emergency scheme for small businesses and community, voluntary and sporting bodies affected by the recent flooding operated on behalf of Government by the Irish Red Cross. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has put assistance measures in place for the farming community as well in respect of animal welfare and fodder aid. In the case of farms, support can be provided under the Department of Social Protection scheme towards the family home.

I assure the committee that the Department is providing reassurance to householders that financial support is available and is continuing to engage with the local authorities, An Garda Síochána and other emergency personnel to ensure that all available supports are provided to households affected by the recent flooding. I hope this has been of assistance and we are happy to answer any questions.

If members agree, I will take questions from Deputy O'Dea first because he will be obliged to leave for Question Time in the Dáil. Is that agreed?

I am due in the Seanad for a Commencement debate at 2.30 p.m., so I ask that I would be able to come in as quickly as possible also.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation and the staff in the Department of Social Protection offices in Limerick and Clare for their responsiveness to people who have approached them in respect of this matter. I have a few brief questions. How much money has been allocated to cover this scheme? On page 3 of her presentation, Ms Faughnan referred to the different stages. Stage 3 relates to longer-term financial support for plastering, dry lining, repairing floors, etc. Is there a cap on the amount that any individual can get under that stage?

I am not making a political point because what I will say now also applied under the previous scheme when we were in government. I have come across a number of self-employed people, some of whom have managed to keep the water at bay but, because of their efforts and those of their families in that regard, have not been able to give time to their jobs.

They are losing substantial amounts of income. Is there any plan to provide for loss of income in a case like that? Some of the people I have come across are self-employed and have suffered flooding. Because of the problems with their houses, they have been unable to perform their particular trade or profession.

May I ask for clarification on the Red Cross scheme? Is the compensation for businesses confined to damage to buildings? There is no income loss that can be covered. It is just for damage to the business premises. Is that correct?

Ms Helen Faughnan

We have spent €235,000 since the beginning of December, mainly on making first stage emergency payments.

Is there an overall budget?

Ms Helen Faughnan

In 2012 when we received permission to operate the scheme, the Government gave approval to spend up to €10 million. At the minute there is no cap on the scheme which is demand-led. We are in a position to provide for needs as they arise. As it is means-tested, we are not compensating fully in all instances. We are trying to repair houses to bring them back to a habitable condition; therefore, there is a balance to be struck. Each individual case is assessed on its own needs. Some people might have been able to move some of their white goods to a place of safety, while others could not do so. Floors were destroyed, etc. The staff are meeting and sitting down with individual households to discuss what their needs are. People moving to stage 2 will generally be getting estimates of the cost of repairs to allow them to move back in. We are, therefore, still at the early stages. We are providing for fuel costs to help to dry out houses and providing for the hire of dehumidifiers in some areas. We are also assisting the local authorities. Where pumps have been provided for a lot of private houses, we are working in tandem with the local authorities in providing fuel to keep going on a regular basis. While I am quite happy to say there is no cap, we are conscious, in terms of ensuring value for money, of the general cost of replacing various items. We will be replacing to a good quality, durable level. We will not be at the top end of the expensive market if we have to replace a kitchen, furniture or things like that, but we provide good quality, durable replacements.

In the case of people who are self employed, we are examining that issue. If, for example, a self-employed person cannot go to work because he or she is manning the pumps etc. and cannot meet a bill or has other issues, absolutely he or she should come and talk to us. We will see how we can assist the people concerned. It may not be replacement of earnings per se, but if a person is in difficulty and unable to meet particular needs because of loss of earnings - it could be the case that he or she has difficulty in making a mortgage payment or whatever else - we will look at his or her various needs. The scheme is designed to be flexible.

Like the Deputy, I pay tribute to community welfare service staff around the country. They take the welfare aspect of their role particularly seriously. They are looking at what is in the best interests of each householder to try to meet his or her needs which are far ranging. A lot of people are under extreme stress and suffering anguish because of what has happened to them. It is a question of dealing with the practical day-to-day pieces, for example, for families that have had to move out and are living in bed and breakfast accommodation. Parents are trying to provide food, etc. for their family; we are, therefore, covering the cost of meals not covered in bed and breakfast accommodation. It can even come down to other items. Ms Kelleher was telling me about a family in County Clare that had two dogs but nowhere to put them. In that case we are providing for kennel hire, which has removed one little worry from a family in meeting their needs.

In respect of the Red Cross scheme, I understand it covers the cost of returning a business premises to its pre-flood condition and includes the replacement of flooring, fixtures, fittings and damaged stock.

That is fairly comprehensive with regard to the need the Red Cross is trying to meet. For the information of the joint committee, yesterday we also circulated data from the Red Cross on the payments it has made to date, but that process is ongoing.

I thank Ms Faughnan.

I thank the Chairman for allowing me to contribute at this time, as I must attend a Commencement debate in the Seanad. I thank the witnesses for their attendance and pay tribute to the Department of Social Protection for being so proactive in this regard and for getting the scheme off the ground quickly. Moreover, the information leaflet issued by the Department before Christmas containing contact numbers was helpful.

I sympathise with those affected by this flooding. It is disastrous and soul destroying for a person when his or her house is destroyed. In fairness, communities, neighbours and businesses have rowed in to help, and everyone thinks there is a great sense of community in the affected areas where people are helping. That said, I have a few questions on the Department's presentation. I find it hard that Ms Faughnan stated anyone "with a gross household income of €70,000 or less will receive 100% of the amount allowable in respect of their application" but yet the Department cannot tell members what is the amount allowable. Moreover, as Ms Faughnan has indicated that no cap will be applied, how does one know what constitutes 100% if the Department has not set an amount for such an application? The witnesses are suggesting one will get 100% on a discretionary basis but 100% of what? I find this to be contradictory. If someone applies for humanitarian aid, I assume there will not be an inspection of the house because that would take time and so on. How will a person provide proof? Must he or she get something signed by the council or whoever to the effect he or she has been flooded? How will the Department investigate that side of this issue? Ms Faughnan also stated that people in rented accommodation would not get help in this regard. What about people living in rented accommodation who have had their goods destroyed? Many people furnish their own rented accommodation. Will they be helped?

Although assistance to farmers may not be under the Department's remit, Ms Faughnan referred to it. I welcome such assistance because I know of farmers whose fodder was destroyed. However, no one in any Department or anywhere else has ever mentioned fishermen, who have been off the seas since November because of storms and so on. They have lost pots and many other items and, being self-employed, have no income and are not receiving assistance. I acknowledge this may not be under the remit of the Department of Social Protection, but at the same time, Ms Faughnan brought up the subject of farmers and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Perhaps she might be able to provide me with some answers in this regard.

Ms Helen Faughnan

I thank the Senator. On the figure of 100%, for example, a householder who needs a fridge, a cooker, a settee suite, new flooring, etc. will approach us bringing an estimate or two of the cost of replacing all that. In the case of a couple with two children whose income is below €70,000, we will meet the full cost to replace those items. Each case is different, depending on the needs, and even in the case of houses in a row that have been flooded, some will have damage that is different from others. Consequently, it is 100% of the individual person's requirement.

Ms Faughnan noted in her presentation that the Government has not set a limit on the amount. Consequently, that means there are no limits.

Ms Helen Faughnan

Can the Senator say that again please?

Ms Faughnan stated "The Government has not set a limit on the amount that can be paid to an individual household under this scheme", so that means there is no limit.

Ms Helen Faughnan

While there is no overall limit, we have guidance to our staff that applies all year round for such exceptional needs payments. For example, we have guidelines whereby if one is replacing a cooker, one is looking at approximately €310, and for fridges and so on, we have recommended maximum limits.

So it would be a state-of-the art fridge that would be suitable for the family's needs.

Ms Helen Faughnan

Exactly. In regard to the inspection of homes, the community welfare service staff work in tandem with the local authorities. Generally, the local authorities would notify us of houses that have been flooded, which would be confirmed by way of an engineer's report, etc. We would have that information in advance of contacting the families concerned. In the first instance, we would contact them to reassure them and to let them know this scheme is in place and that when the waters abate, etc., we will be available to assist them. There is ongoing telephone contact with people to reassure them and let them know that we will be available to help them.

On the question regarding rented accommodation, where a tenant has furnished a property, we will provide assistance to help him or her replace furniture, etc. In regard to a private landlord, we would not cover damage to the property. However, if a landlord is experiencing difficulty, he or she can seek assistance through the urgent needs payment scheme, particularly if he or she has a tenant in situ. We do not want to see tenants being made homeless, so we could assist under the urgent needs payment, UNP, scheme to help the landlord bring the property back to a habitable condition.

I assume that is means-tested.

Ms Helen Faughnan

It is.

In regard to assistance for fishermen, to date, that issue has not arisen. That would be a matter for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I am not aware that any issues in that regard have arisen to date.

I welcome our guests, thank them for their time and ask that they pass on my gratitude to their colleagues on the ground in west Cork for the work they have done. They do a tremendous job.

I have a couple of questions in regard to the scheme in general. It is hard to explain to anybody how one feels when one's home has been flooded. To walk into a person's home and see his or her belongings and prized possessions, including photographs, etc., destroyed is a terrible experience. My constituency office was flooded between Christmas and the new year. I spent a couple of hours on new year's eve sweeping human faeces from my office floor. The odour that lingers in a property after it has been flooded is awful. To have one's home devastated in that way is awful, as I know only too well because the properties of my neighbours in Clonakilty were flooded in 2012. The fire brigade evacuated my wife and children from our house at 2.30 a.m. but it turned out not to be necessary as our house was not flooded. Unfortunately, as I said, all of our neighbours' houses were flooded. I called to those houses to see the damage done and the smell of them will remain with me forever.

To call a scheme a humanitarian assistance scheme and then subject applicants for that assistance to a means-test goes against the grain. That people whose lives and homes have been devastated will not, if earning more than €70,000, be eligible for assistance under this scheme is cruel and wrong. That provision must be reviewed. The aim of a humanitarian scheme is to assist people whose homes have been destroyed and who cannot access insurance. That people earning more than €70,000 cannot receive assistance is cruel.

Their disposable income would be a lot less.

Yes. I know that a tiered arrangement applies. As politicians, we pick up perceptions. My perception of this scheme is that it does not do what was intended and that the spirit of the scheme is not being delivered to the people most in need who were affected by the recent flooding, as also happened in the aftermath of the flooding in 2012. The reason so little of the money has been spent to date is because so few people have been able to access it. That is a fault of the scheme rather than those administering it. The criteria around the scheme are too strict. There is also too much bureaucracy involved. For example, the owners of a bed and breakfast facility, which is also their home, are precluded from applying for assistance because the property is, in part, a business.

There are many grey areas. Of all the Departments that exercise discretion the Department of Social Protection is the top and I am aware that community welfare officers frequently exercise discretion.

I live in Clonakilty, which is a flood-prone area. My office is in Bandon, which is a flood-prone area and was flooded twice in December. Deputy Harrington and I are from the same constituency. Skibbereen is another town in our constituency that is prone to flooding. We know more than a thing or two about flooding. My sense is that this scheme does not work. I have a negative interpretation which is why I requested today's meeting and I thank the Chair for accommodating that.

Has the scheme been reviewed since its inception in 2012? What has been learned from that and what recommendations have come from it, if that is the case? If not, I would like to see it being reviewed overall. I appreciate that we, as public representatives, get the negative views. I am sure that people who were successfully dealt with through the scheme have not come to my office or that of my colleague, Deputy Harrington, but those who were refused did. I get that sense of frustration from many of the refusals.

I thank the officials for coming here today. I put on record our gratitude to the public servants who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, not just those from the Department of Social Protection, but also those from the Department of Defence and the various emergency services. The country has experienced fair devastation in the past month. I am thankful that my colleague raised the issue of the fishermen, as I had not considered how they must have suffered.

A county councillor brought to my attention an issue that is analogous to some of the other stuff that has been said - the cost of running pumps. He adverted to a person who had six pumps running. The person is self-employed and will not qualify under the means test. I agree with Deputy Jim Daly that there should be no means test where that sort of devastation is concerned. Family lives are destroyed. That is not an issue for the officials from the Department of Social Protection but more an issue for what goes on here in Leinster House.

The cost of keeping pumps running 24 hours a day and seven days a week during a crisis such as this is considerable. We are penalising those who save their homes purely because they would not qualify under a means test and because they have gone the extra mile to keep the pumps running to keep their houses dry. Entire families have, literally, had to abandon their jobs to keep the house dry. There are simple things such as covering the cost of running the pump and compensating them in some way for lost income.

I appreciate what the officials have said. Like Deputy Daly, I know the community welfare officers go out of their way to try to assist people in every way they can. However, sometimes the officials' hands are tied. Is there some methodology that the officials wish us to push forward on their behalf in order to give them some more flexibility in dealing particularly with those who will not qualify under the means test and whose only cost was the additional fuel they had to buy in order to keep pumps going?

I am horrified at the means testing. I have seen the devastation of flooded houses and it is pretty frightening. I am glad there is something there for landlords. I would not be a great favourite of the capitalists of this world, but my concern is for those living in rented accommodation. However, I am mindful of the "sale agreed" sign in the middle of a lake in the midlands, which indicates that the land has planning permission for 98 apartments. There will be a lot of that sort of stuff around the place.

Is there something we need to do that will give the officials more flexibility? Have there been requests under the means test that they have had to refuse?

Apropos of what Senator Craughwell said, is there anything we can do? It is so devastating watching it, but there is also something glorious about it - the way people and communities came together. It just shows what can happen with the energy of people - despite politics and bureaucracy, they will still get things done.

Do the officials believe the €235,000 the Department has spent to date is enough?

If I look at what has been spent in any of the 16 counties we have on the list, it seems a very small amount to me. For example, the number of households assisted in Galway was 93 and some €58,000 was spent. Can somebody divide that amount by 93?

It is roughly €500.

I wonder how far that helps when people face four ft. of water and cannot live in their houses. Is there anything the committee can do to shake up the means testing or make it more generous? I do not suggest those administering the scheme are not being generous or are not trying their best, but is there any way we can help? They have said they have a fund of €10 million or that it is uncapped, but it is not uncapped if it is means tested or if there is paperwork and assessments to be carried out. I do not suggest the spend should not be assessed, but is there anything we can do to help, because what is the amount if we divide €58,000 by 93?

It is €620 or so, but I am sure that is just emergency relief.

It is not a lot and raises the question of the cap of €70,000. That cap is laughable.

I wish to say something on that, but I will allow Deputy Harrington in first.

I thank the officials who have come in to make a presentation and acknowledge the work many of the agencies have done over the past six to eight weeks. I acknowledge the work of those in the Defence Forces, local authorities, the Red Cross and volunteers in a range of areas with different issues and problems. When the humanitarian scheme was announced and being administered, even staff in the Department were proactive in some areas and knocked on doors to assess whether affected householders qualified for the scheme.

I share the concerns of Deputy Daly and others in regard to the cap and the gross household income qualifying limits. I accept the allocation is on a reduced scale based on that, but in the broad scheme of things, over the past number of years the income of a couple in a double income household has been hit for everything. These people pay for everything and qualify for very little. They do not qualify for medical assistance and often do not even qualify for university grants for their children or anything else. Deputy Daly has outlined the horror associated with any emergency or disaster, such as a flood, that befalls them. Although the scheme allows for an income limit of €70,000, the community welfare officers are good at using their discretion in terms of what is appropriate. I believe greater discretionary powers would be appropriate. The Department has approved 270 payments to households involved, but how many applied for assistance?

Before Ms Faughnan responds, I have some questions. I would advise caution in regards to the means test. I submitted a parliamentary question recently on income levels and the response from the Revenue Commissioners was that 51% of incomes are at €30,000 or less. Therefore, I disagree that €70,000 is a middle income. Perhaps it is an average income in a double income household, because the average industrial wage is approximately €34,000. However, it is important to remember that the majority of people and households are not on incomes of €70,000. We need to take that reality into account.

I would not agree there should be no means test because the scheme is based on exceptional needs and hardship. If we drop the test in terms of flooding, where would we draw the line in other cases of hardship in terms of a means test?

It depends on whether it is on disposable or net income or gross income.

I do not think that -----

I would not argue against the issue of the thresholds being looked at, but we must look at the issue in the context of 51% of incomes being €30,000 or less.

Hold on a second. In the context of a means test, can the Chairman come up with a parallel national disaster? This is unprecedented flooding.

It is humanitarian assistance.

I accept that but at the same time, it should be acknowledged that the means test compared to the exceptional needs system generally, where people are literally struggling, and I deal with them all of the time-----

I have to say I disagree with you-----

Can I finish my point please?

If someone is earning €200,000 per year-----

I am sorry, Senator, you can come in again after I make my point. The reality is that people have exceptional needs all of the time and, as public representatives, we deal with such people regularly. I am currently advising a constituent whose home was not flooded but who cannot afford to fill the oil tank to provide heat for her children. In my opinion, that person has an exceptional need and I am providing advice on how to make an application for an exceptional needs payment. Of course, it could be increased but the vast majority of people are not, if we are realistic-----

I take your point Chairman but it is not a viable comparison.

It is a very high threshold.

It is not a viable comparison. A natural disaster and 4 ft. of water in one's house, with everything ruined, is not a viable comparison with what the Chairman is suggesting.

The scheme is discretionary and circumstances vary. In some cases, the damage is minor. My point is that €70,000 is a generous threshold compared to most other hardship schemes. That is all I am saying. I am just making a point, with which Members do not have to agree.

Deputy Daly made the point that people are actually sweeping human faeces out of their houses.

I accept all of that.

They will never get over that.

Yes, but a millionaire is obviously in a very different situation-----

Yes, but if one is a millionaire, one is not going to go down to the local social welfare office. We have to trust people-----

Yes, but if one is earning €200,000 per year-----

My point is that people who are very wealthy are not likely to abuse the system and make applications to their community welfare officer.

Should there be a means test or not?

I agree that there should be a means test but it should be reasonable.

More generous?

We must take into account that while €70,000 looks great on paper, after various taxes, the universal social charge, PRSI payments and so forth, there is very little disposable income left.

It is not a viable comparison.

Sorry, Chairman, I wish to make an additional point. People earning €200,000 are paying 50% of their income to the Revenue Commissioners every year. Such people are paying €100,000 in tax every year. If they had insurance, they would make a claim and that would not be means-tested. We are talking here about people who do not have insurance. They were denied insurance which puts them into a very different category.

I understand all of that.

The issue of affordability is not as relevant. An insured millionaire can make a claim and replace or repair damaged goods. It is point worth making.

Yes, but it needs to be balanced, which was why I made my earlier point.

That is all very well and we understand that but that is not the right kind of balance in terms of providing an example. It is not the right-----

We cannot have a debate if people are not allowed to say certain things-----

We are talking about a national disaster, with half the country under 4 ft. of water and people who have genuine needs in their day to day lives. That is not a valid comparison. It is not one or the other. This is an exceptional circumstance.

Of course, it is. We are absolutely on the same page about that. There is no one here who does not have absolute sympathy for the people whose houses have been flooded.

Just so we are clear on that. I was just making the point that the threshold is quite generous compared to other schemes and that the majority of people in the country earn less than the limit. That is a fact.

Ms Helen Faughnan

I wish to clarify a number of issues because there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about the scheme. The scheme is extremely successful and the feedback we have received over the years has been positive. Deputy Daly asked about a review and after the various events, we would review what has happened. The feedback from the households and clients we have been dealing with has been positive. I wish to reassure members that the €70,000 figure is not a cap. People need to make a 1% contribution for each €1,000 they earn over the €70,000. So, if someone is earning €80,000, we will pay 90% of whatever their needs are. Last year, for example, we made payments ranging from €500 up to €12,000. In one particular case, we paid out €50,000 to a couple with two children. The payments depend on the actual needs of households.

I apologise that I have to leave now. I thank the witnesses and will read the transcript of the remainder of the meeting.

Ms Helen Faughnan

Thank you, Senator.

Ms Faughnan did not say this in her speech.

She did. She said it was tapered above €70,000.

She did.

She stated a reduced level of support could be provided.

That still does not change radically the point we are making. I heard the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, make the same point on "Morning Ireland".

Ms Helen Faughnan

Yes. That was an example. I used the word "reduced" or "tapered" as I was speaking.

Ms Helen Faughnan

Deputy Jim Daly asked about people being refused. We have no record of refusals to date.

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell inquired about the sum of €235,000 paid. It is a small sum, but we are still in an emergency. For those whose houses are flooded, we cannot pay them for fridges, cookers, etc. We expect that in the next couple of weeks the level of payments will ramp up substantially as people come to us for help. Currently, we are paying for emergency toiletries and food to help people to continue to meet their requirements.

Senator Gerard P. Craughwell mentioned the cost of running pumps. In many areas local authorities are providing fuel. Where this is not feasible or not happening for some reason, people are coming to us and we are paying for fuel and increased heating. Bord na Móna is delivering briquettes to ensure houses will continue to be heated. In some cases, if somebody has moved into replacement emergency accommodation that has not been occupied for a couple of weeks, fuel tanks are being topped up and the fuel is paid for through the humanitarian scheme.

May I interrupt you for one moment? If I come asking for fuel costs-----

Will the Senator please speak through the Chair?

If I come asking for fuel costs to be covered, will I be means-tested or will the Department meet the cost of fuel for me?

Ms Helen Faughnan

We examine each case individually. If it is an emergency and the Senator needs to keep pumps going but does not have the disposable income available to him to do so, we will meet the costs involved. We have met such costs throughout the country in various instances, particularly of practical items such as dehumidifiers, but each case is decided on its merits.

Deputy Jim Daly spoke about bureaucracy. Under the scheme, we require basic information. We need to verify who the person is and that he or she is living at household X that has been flooded but with the information we are receiving from the local authorities and the local knowledge of community welfare service staff, that is a straightforward matter. If it is a family home, we are replacing elements related to it. If it is a separate unit providing bed and breakfast accommodation, it may be a business, etc. If members of the committee are concerned about particular cases, I ask them to bring them to our attention in order that we can examine each of them.

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell should know that the sum of €235,000 is for the initial 270 households. We have not received complaints to date. On the feedback we are getting from members of the public, they are very pleased with the reassurance being provided by the staff. As Deputy Noel Harrington said, the staff are proactive and calling to families. We have set up emergency clinics. Some people are not yet in a position to know what they need, but our staff are calling back to check in with them to see how they are doing. We have quite a number of years of experience of dealing with the effects of flooding and our staff, particularly Ms Susan Kelleher, experienced the flooding in 2009. Many families were referred to counsellors via the Health Service Executive because of the trauma of watching their home that could have been in the family for generations being destroyed. We are working with the HSE and the authorities to try to meet people's needs as they arise. In 2014, for example, €1.2 million was provided under the scheme for 480 households and the payments differed, depending on need. In terms of the division of that sum, it works out at about €2,500, on average, but it could have been €10,000 for one family or €20,000 for another, depending on what had been destroyed and their capacity to meet their needs.

I want to get the message across that the €70,000 is not a cap. The members of the committee should please ask anyone they come across in their work as public representatives to apply and come to talk to us and not to assume they will not receive benefits. Our supplementary welfare allowance scheme is there to assist people as their needs arise, including somebody who is self-employed and has not been in a position to work.

I got that wrong because on page 2 of the submission Ms Faughnan states: “A reduced level of support can be provided in cases where such families have income over €70,000.” Maybe Ms Faughnan said something else earlier.

Ms Faughnan said “tapered”.

Ms Helen Faughnan

I used the word "tapered".

I cannot find the word "tapered", which I associate with something other than what Ms Faughnan is talking about.

Ms Faughnan said it.

It states:

For example, a family consisting of a couple and two children with a gross household income of €70,000 or less will receive 100% of the amount allowable in respect of their application. A reduced level of support can be provided in cases where such families have income more than €70,000.

That is the only reason I asked the question. I do not know where the tapering comes in.

It was definitely mentioned because I heard it.

Ms Faughnan mentioned it in her presentation. It is not there in print but it was mentioned in the presentation.

I read the printed version before I came in. I absolutely accept what Ms Faughnan says and the work she is doing.

If I earn more than €70,000, for example, €80,000 or €90,000, is that scale available anywhere or is it discretionary?

Ms Helen Faughnan

The person would be required to contribute 1% above the €70,000 if it is for a family with two children.

Does that mean 1% per €1,000 of income?

Ms Helen Faughnan

They would be expected to pay 1% for every €1,000 of income to meet the need. For example, if there was €10,000 worth of damage to the house, and the income was €80,000, the family would get 90% of the €10,000. We would pay €9,000 and the family would pay €1,000.

That should have been in black and white because that is a very important point as the scale rises. It should have been in the submission.

I asked about information on applications received to date, as opposed to what has been paid out or approved for payment.

Ms Helen Faughnan

The amounts available depend on the composition of the family, for example, the number of children. All of this detail is available on the Department’s website. That is the reference in the presentation. The applications are changing daily. Up to last Friday we had paid 270 households. Some of those households have received more than one payment. Depending on the number of children, they might have received €400 or €500 in the first week or so. Now, if they are still out of their homes and need to do laundry and buy food but cannot do a supermarket shop because they cannot access their homes and are shopping daily, which is more expensive, they receive ongoing payments.

How many applications has the Department received that are being processed but have not yet been approved or rejected?

Ms Helen Faughnan

I do not have that figure to hand because applications are decided very quickly for emergency payments. A decision might be made there and then when a person comes into one of our clinics or when we talk to people over the phone.

The assumption is that if nothing has been refused and decisions are taken almost immediately, there have been 270 applications.

Ms Helen Faughnan

That refers to 270 households and the payments are generally made by a manual cheque so there is no overnight or two-day processing period. The cheque is written and handed to the person for immediate use.

I acknowledge that a lot can be perception and reality and that somewhere in between we can get to the actual facts. It is accepted that in 2012 there was a minimal amount of money out of this scheme - if I remember correctly and it was noted afterwards - for the amount of damage that was done in the floods that year. Second, I would query the position with regard to there being no refusals. I know people who did not apply but who had spoken to someone who informed them they would not be eligible or who were not going forward. To me, that is a refusal. Language can sometimes-----

Those people may be mistaken. I have dealt with a similar case where a farmer thought he might not be entitled. We went back and said that actually he might be entitled and advised him to apply. If the person did not make an application, then the Deputy cannot say that he or she has been refused.

I understand. However, if someone advises them that they are ineligible, that is the equivalent of a refusal. I mentioned the issues relating to bed and breakfast accommodation. I appreciate that people may have been misinformed because they may have read something in a newspaper and took it into their heads that they would be ineligible. There is no accounting for what people do. Would the officials from the Department accept that there is an element of this when people are going in to discuss it? The paperwork also presents difficulties. If a person is self-employed, he or she has a most awful fear of being obliged to produce paperwork. In addition, trying to have an assessment carried out can be very difficult. Those issues are real. This is not to cast aspersions on those who are self-employed but people have an abhorrence of these type of schemes when there is a lot of paperwork involved.

Even for people who are not self-employed.

Let us call a spade a spade.

Ms Helen Faughnan

I wish to clarify that for the first-stage payments at this emergency level, self-employed people should come in to discuss this as they would generally receive such payments at least. I always request that people come in. If they have been refused, they can always ask for the case to be reviewed and a separate officer, the manager or a supervisor would look at it. We are finding, right throughout the country, that different issues are arising because family circumstances are so diverse. We are tick-tacking around the country to ensure a consistent approach, etc. To date, people's payments have generally been made. When we consider that a relatively small number of households nationally have been evacuated, we have paid 270 such households in this immediate payment stage. I reiterate that the payments are going to increase in the next couple of weeks.

I am not sure if the witness has further referred to fishermen but can she clarify the situation with regard to farmers? I made enquires on behalf of someone whose land - as opposed to the family home - has been affected by flooding. If fuel, for example, on a person's land is destroyed, can he or she receive funding towards new fuel in order to keep his or her home heated? Is there flexibility there? If someone is a farmer and the house and farm are close together and the two issues overlap, will the Department representatives clarify that situation and what would be available?

Ms Helen Faughnan

With regard to the farm home, we would absolutely meet the needs of the family home - where it is on a farm - in the context of white goods, flooring, furniture, etc. and those people should come and talk to us to see how we can assist them. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine also has the fodder scheme in operation. If a farmer was heating the home by means of a supply of turf that was damaged by flooding, we will provide replacement fuel to heat the family home.

Are there any more questions? I emphasise that any queries the committee has, such as those raised by Deputy Jim Daly, can be brought to the witnesses' attention. The Select Sub-Committee on Education and Skills will meet tomorrow at 10 a.m. I thank the representatives from the Department of Social Protection, Ms Helen Faughnan, Ms Jackie Harrington and Ms Susan Kelleher, for attending. Deputy Jim Daly, the Vice Chairman of the committee, sought this meeting in order that we might discuss the humanitarian assistance scheme, which is a very relevant topic. I thank everyone for participating.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.45 p.m. until 1 p.m. on Tuesday, 20 January 2016.